Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Night Listener

Year 7, Day 136 - 5/16/15 - Movie #2,035 

BEFORE: Got a late start today because I had to speed through the finale of "American Idol" and then watch the last three episodes of "The Amazing Race" before getting to my film.  In both cases I feel the need to watch the results before they get spoiled by someone posting on Twitter - but in the case of the "Idol" finale, I fast-forwarded through all the nonsense and the songs I didn't know, so watching the 2-hour finale took only about 15 minutes.  I'm sort of glad the show's been cancelled after next season, because I feel I've sort of aged out of its target audience, so not having it around to watch will be a great time-saver.  In the case of "Amazing Race", my interest level is still strong, despite someone's attempt this season to turn it into some kind of dating show.  Interesting experiment, now please, never do that again.  The show may have its faults, but not being like "The Bachelor" wasn't one of them.  

This is the second of two films dropped in at the last minute to the Robin Williams chain, mostly as a matter of convenience to make my films line up right with Memorial Day, and this happened to be running on cable and seemed like a more entertaining film than "RV" could possibly be.  Plus, it seems like it could play off of themes of identity, like "The Face of Love" did, with people not being who they appear to be - but I'm just guessing, based on the posted one-sentence synopsis.

THE PLOT: A radio show host begins speaking to his biggest fan, a young boy, via the telephone. But when questions about the boy's identity come up, the host's life is thrown into chaos.

AFTER: Robin Williams plays a late-night radio host here, who specializes in bringing tales from his own experience to his late-night listeners.  Things got somewhat confusing for me early on when his friend, a publisher, brought him a manuscript written by a young boy which weaves a tale of years of being sexually abused by his own parents.  This occurs for the thinnest of reasons - the boy is supposedly a big fan of the radio guy - otherwise I couldn't really understand why this took place.  How is the radio host going to help this kid get the book published?  He works in a totally different medium.  The manuscript itself was somewhat confusing - is the publisher going to print it, or not, and what result did he expect to gain by showing it to a radio guy.  Did he just want him to promote it on the radio or something?

I later learned that this story is based on a true incident that happened to Armistead Maupin, the author of "Tales of the City", and knowing this helps shed a little more light on things.  Maupin's not only an author, but a respected teller of tales from the LGBT community, and if this kid suffered abuse at the hands of pedophiles, perhaps he'd have some insight to give the publisher on the kid's story.  But this wasn't really made clear in the film itself, I had to bring some outside knowledge to the story.  

Williams, playing the Maupin stand-in, Gabriel Noone, plays a gay character here with a great deal more respect than he did playing one in "The Birdcage".  In other words, he's much less queeny here, and I think that shows a sort of cultural progress made, a better understanding of how gay men act.  Perhaps he was trying to redeem his past performance in some way, much like John Ritter did when he starred in "Sling Blade", after playing Jack Tripper on "Three's Company", a character who pretended to be gay in a very similar diva-like fashion.  

The movie, however, falls in to a very easy trap - when showing the young boy talking to Noone on the phone, we see footage of the boy in Wisconsin while speaking to Noone on the phone.  Why?  Because that's the way that most TV shows and movies would film that.  But then for the film to tell us later something that contradicts what we've already seen, well, that's asking a lot from the audience right there.  

I understand, footage of someone's voice coming through the phone is much less interesting, but it would have been a better vehicle for supporting possible doubt later on.  Think about it - if you meet someone via phone or e-mail, until you speak to them face-to-face, there's a slight chance that they look different than they claim, or that they're not who they say they are..  The natural reaction of an audience member here would be to feel as if we've already met the character, when in fact Noone had not. 

I can't say any more without getting into spoilers, there's obviously more to the story once this doubt is introduced.  (I can't even tie it in with last night's film without giving too much away...)  But I'm left with a feeling of not "What is this story about?" but more like "Why is this story being told?"  Even if it's a true story, I'm not sure about what insight, if any, it imparts about life or the human condition, or anything for that matter.  I just don't know why someone would raise so many points and then do nearly nothing with them.

Also starring Toni Collette (last seen in "Enough Said"), Rory Culkin (last seen in "Signs"), Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "Blue Jasmine"), Joe Morton (last seen in "Apt Pupil"), John Cullum (last seen in "The Notorious Bettie Page"), Sandra Oh, with a cameo from Becky Ann Baker. 

RATING: 3 out of 10 flight attendants

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Face of Love

Year 7, Day 135 - 5/15/15 - Movie #2,034 

BEFORE: I sort of found the antidote to the depression caused by this week's films (which all seem to end up being about suicide or the death of loved ones), and that's comedy.  Real stand-up comedy - I recorded a number of specials from cable and took some time today to dub them to DVD, and watching them has lifted my spirits a bit - so thanks to Jay Mohr, Dana Gould, John Mulaney, Amy Schumer and Chris Hardwick for doing what they do, and to the channels that still air stand-up comedy specials, because man, sometimes we just need it.

I've been working my way backwards through Robin Williams' filmography, of course skipping the films I've seen before, but I let the reverse chronology choose the order, until tonight anyway.  I'm dropping in two latecomers that were airing on cable this week, partially as a bit of an extender to make the right film fall on Memorial Day weekend, but also they seemed to fit with the tone of the week.  Admittedly Robin Williams doesn't have a lead role here, just a supporting one, but I've seen a number of dead spouse riffs already this week, so I'm hoping this slips right in.

THE PLOT:  A widow falls for a man who bears a striking resemblance to her late husband.

AFTER: When I discovered the premise of this film, my mind went in a few different directions.  I mean, it would be an astounding coincidence for someone to find a new lover who looked exactly like their last one, right?  So a couple obvious (to me, anyway) explanations rose to the surface - ah, he's probably her husband's long-lost twin, and they were separated at birth.  Or maybe they'll go the soap opera route, and he faked his own death, only to come back once suspicion died down.  Ooh, ooh, maybe someone had plastic surgery done to LOOK like her dead husband, to mess with her sanity for some similar purpose.  

Aliens?  Clones?  Pod people?  Her husband was a secret agent?  Oh, maybe he's not even really there, maybe she's just imagining a new lover who looks just like her dead husband - can other characters see him?  I guess I've maybe been watching too many movies, if my mind immediately goes to the more fantastic scenarios.  But that's where I am in my life right now - a movie starts and right away I start to see if I can predict the ending.  I think my mental software for watching, analyzing and judging has just run too many times in a row - I'm practically on auto-pilot at this point.

So let's mark it as a positive that there are no aliens or clones or pod people in this film - just two people, one alive and one dead, who happen to look alike, which conveniently allows them to be played by the same actor.  The film itself acknowledges that there are so many people in the world, and there are only so many facial shapes, hair styles, nose shapes, etc. that statistically, anyone could have a virtual double living somewhere else that they will probably never run into.  Hey, people used to say that no two snowflakes are alike, but now they're saying even that's not true, water can freeze in only so many configurations, you would just have to look at an awful lot of them to find a match.

So if you give this premise the benefit of the doubt and allow that it's possible, where does the story go from there?  Well, it doesn't exactly go nowhere, but it doesn't cover a lot of territory, either.  There are conversations that need to happen in order for these two humans to keep interacting in a romantic fashion, and the fact that those conversations keep NOT happening seems to be a huge delaying tactic.  Because as soon as they have one of those conversations, then the truth is going to come out, and someone's going to start questioning what the true nature of the relationship is, and then once that happens, it's either going to be over, or it's going to go to the next level.  

The obvious shout-out is to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo", or perhaps "Body Double" (which was sort of De Palma's tribute to Hitch, anyway), only without much of that suspense or intrigue.  And this film is just crying out for some intrigue - to me the long, framed shots of Robin Williams' neighbor character suggested something sinister was going on, but perhaps I'm reading something between the lines that wasn't really there.

In the end, it's sort of an extreme example of something that a lot of people go through - not just loss, but recovering from loss.  And whether it's divorce, death or some other form of separation, eventually people will get to a stage where they're ready to open up again, and dating becomes both wonderful and problematic, especially if the grieving process is still going on.  Is it appropriate to take one's new lover to the same restaurants or the same vacation spots?  When and how do you tell your family members about the new person in your life?  Is it OK to date someone who reminds you of your ex-lover in certain ways?  There are no hard and fast rules, to be sure, and again, this is the extremest of extreme examples, but I think as a metaphor it sort of encapsulates something a bit more universal. 

Also starring Annette Bening (last seen in "Girl Most Likely"), Ed Harris (last heard in "Gravity"), Jess Weixler, Amy Brenneman (last seen in "Your Friends & Neighbors"), Clyde Kusatsu (last seen in "The Interpreter"), Linda Park.

RATING: 4 out of 10 birds of paradise

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Patch Adams

Year 7, Day 134 - 5/14/15 - Movie #2,033

BEFORE:  Hey, maybe this is just what I need around here to lighten the mood - the story of a fun-loving doctor who doesn't play by the rules.  We all liked "M*A*S*H", right?  

THE PLOT: In the 1970s, a medical student treats patients, illegally, using humor.

AFTER:  This film's got it all - terminally ill patients, including children, the horrors of medical school, loneliness, depression, but wait, there's more.  The film opens with Hunter "Patch" Adams checking himself into a mental institution.  Why?  Because he tried to commit suicide.  Of course.  For extra misery, there are a number of scenes here where Robin Williams interacts with also-deceased actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Good luck enjoying those now.  (Jeez, even the old lady that rapped in "The Wedding Singer" is in here, and she passed away last week.)  

Maybe I've got this whole Robin Williams thing backwards - forget the "tears of a clown" thing, maybe he just portrayed too many of these complex, depressed characters and that somehow rubbed off on him.  Perhaps he got too much into the headspace of characters that were suicidal, and there was no going back.  Or maybe Patch Adams is a symbolic insight - Adams became a doctor to help people as a way of trying to forget about his own problems.  In the same way, maybe Robin Williams came alive on stage and that was his escape, and it was just the reality of his down time that he couldn't handle. 

To raise Patch Adams up, the film has to downplay the entire medical profession, except for him.  To create a system that he can buck up against, there's a blatant implication that he somehow invented caring, or that every single doctor in the history of medicine somehow forgot to ask every patient what their names were.  There's a reason why you hire the guy who played the warden in "The Shawshank Redemption" to play the head of the medical school, and that's to imply that he's running the place the exact same way.  But this could be a fabrication, another manipulation, because that doctor's not given a chance to defend himself, I don't get to hear his side of things. 

There's plenty more manipulation here, like championing nurses over doctors - I'm not saying their work isn't great, but why can't they both be recognized here?  Also, Patch Adams' style of comedy is always a hit with the sick kids, even though Robin Williams' brand of scattershot references should often be way over their heads.  The use of sick kids alone is enough to make this film even more heavy-handed than the holocaust film was.  Just about the only film that I've seen that was more manipulative was "What Dreams May Come", which also starred Robin Williams as a doctor, which had the nerve to say, "No, heaven doesn't work THAT way, it works THIS way, because we need that to make our story work."  Give me a break.

If you read up on the story of the real Patch Adams, you'll see just how far the manipulation goes - note that at the end of the credits, there's a card which admits that events were fictionalized and some characters from Adams' life were combined, and it's the way in which this was done that seems really egregious.

It's not really true that "laughter is the best medicine."  MEDICINE is the best medicine, but you can say that laughter is important, too.  Try them both, but please try medicine first, unless there are side-effects like suicidal thoughts or the condition known as hot dog fingers.  

Next Thursday is Red Nose Day - OK, I admit I thought it was THIS Thursday, and I was wrong.  I also thought this charity event had something to do with Patch Adams, and I was wrong about that too.  But it is an event organized by Comic Relief, which is a cause that Robin Williams supported.  (Jeez, Robin, why didn't the charity work that you did help keep you going just a bit longer?)  At first I was against giving out a plug, but then I thought, "Why not?"  I've got a forum here that reaches literally tens of people, and if I can do a good turn I probably should.  So, since I've been pretty hard on Robin Williams this week, I'm planning to send in a check - like how if I have a fantastic meal I sometimes send in a check to City Harvest to not feel as guilty about it.  

Also starring Daniel London (last seen in "It's Kind of a Funny Story"), Monica Potter (last seen in "Con Air"), Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "When a Man Loves a Woman"), Bob Gunton (last seen in "Argo"), Josef Sommer, Irma P. Hall (last seen in "The Ladykillers"), Peter Coyote (last seen in "Random Hearts"), Michael Jeter (also carrying over from "Jakob the Liar"), Harold Gould (last seen in "Marnie"), Harve Presnell, with cameos from Alan Tudyk (last heard in "Frozen"), Ellen Albertini Dow, Dot-Marie Jones.

RATING: 5 out of 10 balloon animals

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Jakob the Liar

Year 7, Day 133 - 5/13/15 - Movie #2,032

BEFORE: It's season finale time on TV, which means it's also cancellation time for a number of shows.  I'm torn because I want the shows I like to continue, but I'd also like to have some more time in my schedule.  Right now I'm running only about a month and a half behind on most shows, which for me is pretty good, except for "The Amazing Race", which is the only show I tend to binge-watch in the days leading up to the finale.  I have to time this just right, because if I start too soon, watching two episodes a night gets me to the end too quickly, but if I wait too long to start, the finale will air and I could easily see the identity of the winners posted on Twitter or when they're interviewed on a talk show.  Three episodes on Tuesday, three more tonight and I'm already halfway done.

Still in Robin Williams week, and I suppose this is the sort of tone you set when you start the month with a film like "The Skeleton Twins", plus pay tribute to an actor who committed suicide last year.  It's still fresh, and it's bringing the whole demeanor down here at the Movie Year, but things have got to perk up eventually, right?  

THE PLOT:  In 1944 Poland, a Jewish shopkeeper named Jakob overhears a German radio broadcast about Russian troop movements and shares his information to spread hope throughout the ghetto.

AFTER: Look, I can't always explain why one film is a hit and another one isn't, even if they appear to be very similar in their make-up.  Hollywood latches on to themes and repeats things over and over (that isn't to say that they shouldn't, I merely point out that they do) and if something sells or seems important, you're bound to see more of it.  I mean, "Schindler's List" won Best Picture of 1993, and when Oscar season rolls around, you're usually considered a fool if you bet against a performance where someone plays handicapped or diseased, or if you bet against a Holocaust film, especially if it's a documentary.  

So why did Roberto Benigni's performance in "Life Is Beautiful" win him a Best Actor Oscar, but Robin Williams' performance in "Jakob the Liar" get him nominated for Golden Raspberry?  (That's not good, by the way...)  Was it just because Benigni's film was released two years earlier, making Williams seem like a copycat?  Were people not willing to view funny-man Robin Williams in a serious role?  He'd done serious stuff before, even winning an Oscar himself for "Good Will Hunting".  So what gives?   

(For that matter, there's that notable Jerry Lewis film "The Day the Clown Cried", about a circus clown that gets imprisoned in a concentration camp, and it stirred up so much controversy, and is reportedly so awful that it will never be released.  All of these films get made with the best of intentions - let's assume - but at some point it becomes a question of tone, and audiences often feel that if a film is trying too hard to be relevant, it can easily be labelled as heavy-handed.)

It's one of those unanswerable questions, like asking, "How can a man be so funny and perky on stage or in film, and then be so withdrawn and depressed at home?"  Or "How can an actor be in a film that's all about finding hope when all hope is lost, and then be unable to find it himself?"  I don't mean to dump on Robin Williams, I really don't, but watching his films over the last few nights has really driven home the point that I just don't understand what was going on inside his head.  There's a new documentary out about comedians that Kevin Pollak has been promoting, called "Misery Loves Comedy", and it's all about how some of the funniest comedians also have some of the most miserable personal lives, and perhaps I should be checking that out to find answers to my lingering questions.  

And here's where my rating system fails, because in the end it just represents how much I enjoyed a film, rather than how important a film might be, and I don't think this is a film that's meant to be enjoyed.  Can I just call a mulligan tonight and be done with it?

Also starring Liev Schreiber (last seen in "The Butler"), Bob Balaban (last seen in "Girl Most Likely"), Alan Arkin (last seen in "Wait Until Dark"), Armin Mueller-Stahl (last seen in "The X-Files"), Hannah Taylor Gordon, Mark Margolis (last seen in "Immortals"), Michael Jeter (last seen in "Open Range"), Nina Siemaszko.

RATING: 4 out of 10 bags of cement

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


Year 7, Day 132 - 5/12/15 - Movie #2,031

BEFORE: Last night I sort of went back to where it all began - this restaurant near the skating rink in Rockefeller Center (and during the summer, they're where the rink is during the winter) for a pop-up beer dinner from the Brooklyn Brewery.  This was where I went to my first beer pairing dinner in 2003, and I was a regular there for monthly dinners for about 9 or 10 years, until they suddenly stopped hosting them.  Which was a shame, it was a great deal, paying about $50 for a dinner of four courses paired with 4 beers, right in the heart of the city - OK, so I usually had to listen to a brewer talk about how great his company's beers were, that's a small price to pay.  When they stopped, I had to seek out beer dinners at other venues, which eventually led to me escaping from a burning restaurant last September.  So it was great that the original restaurant has revived the concept.  

Robin Williams carries over from "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn", though he's not the star of this film, so I wasn't sure whether to watch this now, or in a Kevin Spacey chain.  But I needed to stretch out the chain to hit Memorial Day right, so here goes.

THE PLOT:  Unable to cope with a recent personal tragedy, LA's top celebrity shrink turns into a pothead with no concern for his appearance and a creeping sense of his inability to help his patients.

AFTER:  See, I went with my gut, and I shouldn't have worried.  This works as a companion piece to last night's film - that was an ensemble film of messed-up NYC characters, and this is an ensemble film of messed-up L.A. characters.  Which city's people are more screwed up?  Well, if New Yorkers are rude and angry and bitter, Los Angelenos are depressed, introspective and self-absorbed.  You tell me who you'd rather hang out with.  

Thematically it fits, because in its own way this is about death and dying and the effects that people feel after the loss of a loved one.    Ah, I get it, there's a double meaning, in that people tend to "shrink" away from their commitments and friends when they're hurting.  Again, Robin Williams, I want to know - how do you make a film where a character is suffering greatly after a family member has committed suicide, and then just a few years later, you do the same thing to your own family?  When I debate this in my mind, I can't come up with an equation that would lead anyone to think that suicide is the answer - how can anything seem so hopeless, that you view the world as better off without you? 

The main character has just written a self-help book, which is only ironic because that phrase represents the only thing that he seems unable to do.  Me, I like to go into bookstores and ask the clerks where the self-help section is, just to see if they'll spot the irony.  I'd love to hear one say, "Sir, if I told you where that is, it would defeat the purpose."  Other characters suffer other indignities, while working as parking valets or film-production gofers or actresses being told that they're now too old for leading roles.  Oh, and the drug dealer, who's positioned to act as a foil character for the therapist - he also dispenses the medicine and advice, just in a different form.

Beer is now my drug of choice, which is only a problem if I treat beer like movies - I have to try all of them!  My life might have been different if the people I hung out with in junior year of college had been better pot smokers - these were people who didn't have much spare cash, so if they heard you could get high by smoking banana peels or peanut shells, they'd try it, because think of all the money we'd save!  So my experiences with marijuana are somewhat limited, but that doesn't mean I can't book a trip to Colorado someday and give it another go.  

I'm guessing life is somewhat different in California too these days, where they've had medical marijuana since 2003.  Lewis Black used to have a joke that the easiest job in the world was being a weatherman in southern California (today's weather - umm, nice!) but perhaps the second easiest job now is being a psychiatrist there.  Can't sleep?  Smoke some pot.  Feeling uptight?  Smoke some pot.  Stressed out from work?  Let's see...have you tried pot?

This film ended up coming across like "The Player" without the star power or murder plot, or "Crash" without the star power or racial tension.  If you watch all of these films, you may come to the conclusion that Los Angeles is exactly like you see in these movies, in that everyone is connected to everyone else via links that they may not even be aware of, and if they're going to get through life, they're going to have to work together.  <> bullshit  <

But it all feels rather pointless and random, until they get to the Hollywood ending - no, not that one, the one that says, "Let's make a movie out of it!"  Why is this always your answer, Hollywood people? The film industry fuels the economy and is our country's main export, so don't try to tell me you're in that business to do some good in the world, because I ain't buying that hogwash.  You're in it to make money, which is fine, but why can't you just admit that?

Also starring Kevin Spacey (last seen in "The Shipping News"), Mark Webber (last seen in "Hollywood Ending"), Keke Palmer (last heard in "Ice Age: Continental Drift"), Pell James (last seen in "Zodiac"), Saffron Burrows (last seen in "Circle of Friends"), Dallas Roberts (last seen in "The Notorious Bettie Page"), Jesse Plemons (last seen in "The Master"), Jack Huston (last seen in "American Hustle"), Robert Loggia, with cameos from Gore Vidal, Griffin Dunne (last seen in "Once Around").

RATING: 3 out of 10 trips through the car wash

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

Year 7, Day 131 - 5/11/15 - Movie #2,030

BEFORE: Robin Williams carries over from "The Butler", and I'm presented with the same old conundrum, how complete should a tribute be?  These films were initially much further down on my list, I think in hopes that I could add the latest "Night at the Museum" film, but the shake-up two months ago when I created the new linking thread moved them much closer to the top of the list.

I don't have access to every one of his films that I haven't seen, so should I go online and watch "The Survivors"?  "Moscow on the Hudson"?  Adding too many films at this point will slow me down, and could prevent me from finishing on time?  But at the same time, I got one film to line up with Mother's Day, and I'm a little short if I want a different film to line up thematically with Memorial Day.  OK, so a compromise - I checked the DVR for any other upcoming films starring Robin Williams that I haven't seen, and there were two of them.  So my 7-film tribute has turned into a 9-film tribute, that only slows me down by 2 days, and I can still be on point for Memorial Day and Comic-Con.  (Sorry, Flag Day and 4th of July...)

THE PLOT:  A perpetually angry man is informed he has 90 minutes to live and promptly sets out to reconcile with his family and friends in the short time he has left.

AFTER:  If you watch this film and you're unfamiliar with New Yorkers, you might draw the conclusion that we all have these lists of people and things we hate, like the main character in this film.  Well, of course, that's true.  A few of mine: loud cell phone talkers, slow sidewalk walkers, people with double-wide baby carriages, people who pound out the rhythms of their songs on the subway poles, people who lean up against the subway poles with their asses, people who cough or sneeze on their hands and then touch the subway poles, generally anyone who touches my food with or without gloves, waiters who refuse to write anything down, janitors who insist on cleaning the men's room while I'm in it (Jeez, man, can't you give me 5 more freakin' minutes?), telemarketers (duh), customer service reps, Time Warner FRICKIN' cable, plumbers who don't show up ontime, people who use bad grammar, people who take offense when I point out their bad grammar, people who jump the line at the post office, postmen who bend my mail when it's marked "DO NOT BEND", lost mail, lost luggage, people who take too many carry-on bags with them on the plane, airline personnel who don't enforce the rules about carry-on bags, hipsters, people who ride those enormous old-timey bicycles or who have handlebar mustaches, people who try to up-sell me at the movie theater, people who pay for a $3 bagel with a debit card.  

I'm sure I'm missing a bunch of people, but let's stop there and I'll jump back in and add more later if the mood strikes me.  My point is, someone involved with this film really understands New Yorkers.  To a point, that is, because there are some very fundamental mistakes here, ones that happen to advance the plot because of confusion or miscommunication, but have no bearing in reality.  Like how nobody can reach each other on their cell phones when they absolutely need to, because as soon as they connect, they can find each other, and once they find each other, then the searching is over and the resolution needs to happen, and soon the film will be over.  So it's too bad that the film that set out to explore anger issues and family strife turned into a big chase scene across Brooklyn - I think that's an easy trap to fall into that could have been avoided, but admittedly it would have been a much shorter film.  

In the same vein, there are contradictions that stem from characters saying what they can't do, or shouldn't do, and then doing exactly that.  Like "Well, I shouldn't break doctor-patient confidentially, but let me now explain that person's entire medical history."  This is even worse when the thing in question is physically impossible, like "We can't possibly get all the way across the borough of Brooklyn in 30 minutes.", followed by "Hey, we did it in 17 minutes flat!"  Umm, how, exactly did you just do that impossible thing, and during rush hour no less?  I'm sure if you break down any quest-based film, from "The Hangover" to "The Hobbit", you're going to find little continuity hiccups, but it's not like the Tolkien characters set themselves up for failure by saying, "We can't possibly outrun all of these trolls in time!" to be followed by, "Whew, that was a close one, wasn't it?"

So there are lots of NITPICK POINTS to go around here.  Why would a doctor tell someone he has just 90 minutes to live?  Why would he then leave the office, instead of checking himself into a hospital?  Why wouldn't said doctor make sure to admit him, rather than let him leave?  The short answer is, "because if they didn't, we wouldn't have this film, we'd have this other film", but still - don't look for this one to make sense, and maybe take it as a metaphor.

Interestingly, a number of themes carry over from "The Butler", not the main plotline of course, but the themes of a parent trying to reconcile with a son, things about growing older and having regrets, and trying to make the most of what time one has left in the world.  (NOTE: There are more coincidences, but I'm not mentioning them for fear of possible spoilers.)

Unfortunately this film was given an entirely different meaning, given Robin Williams' own exit from the world at a time of his own choosing.  It's a shame that the actor played a character who ultimately learns that time is precious, and that there's no better time than now to reconcile with your family, and it seems like maybe that message got lost on him.  I'm no expert on acting, and I understand there needs to be a separation between actors and their characters, but still, you hope that maybe when there's a positive message, some form of osmosis will carry on through. 

Also starring Mila Kunis (last seen in "Ted"), Peter Dinklage (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Melissa Leo (last seen in "Flight"), Hamish Linklater (last seen in "Battleship"), Sutton Foster, Richard Kind (last seen in "Argo"), with cameos from Jerry Adler, James Earl Jones (last heard in "Judge Dredd"), Louis C.K.

RATING: 4 out of 10 brown bag lunches

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Butler

Year 7, Day 130 - 5/10/15 - Movie #2,029

BEFORE: That's right, "The Butler".  NOT "Lee Daniels' The Butler", because a director's name should never be part of a film's title.  It's not "Orson Welles' Citizen Kane", is it?  Or "Steven Spielberg's E.T."?  Because the title is the title, and there's a place for the director's name in the credits that is NOT the title.  Can we all get some consistency on this?  I also do not allow "Disney's" to be part of a film title, because, well, it's not.  We don't say "20th Century Fox's Star Wars" when referring to the 1977 film, or "Miramax's Shakespeare in Love", now, do we?  

(Once again, I blame Tyler Perry.  He negotiated a great deal for himself, to be sure, but the grammatical abomination that is "Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection" should make my point for me.  You simply can't have more than one possessive in a title.  I admit that there is something called "name above the title", which some directors are guaranteed, according to their contracts.  But's that just for the specifications on the poster - and anyway, it's name ABOVE the title, not IN the title.  

(EDIT: Supposedly, Warner Brothers filed a claim to have this film renamed, because they own a 1916 silent short film called "The Butler", and this justified the re-naming of the film.  I'm not buying that, because I happen to know that you can NOT copyright a title.  There are different films released with the same title all the time, like "Crash" or "The Illusionist" or "Mr. & Mrs. Smith".  If I wanted to make a documentary about tornado chasers and call it "Gone With the Wind", I have every legal right to do so.)  

Why this film, why today?  Well, it's Mother's Day, and I have a feeling that there's going to be some material in here that relates to a mother-son relationship.  Plus, my mother saw this film and recommended it to me, which is usually a sign that I'm going to hate it.  My mother doesn't have a good track record after suggesting I watch "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" - of course, she spoiled the ending after I asked her not to.  She'll typically say, "Just let me tell you this one thing..." and of course that one thing will be the whole key to the plot - thanks, Ma.  

My linking this week has been rather extreme - from Stan Lee to Dave Bautista to Karl Urban.  These are not people who have a ton of acting credits.  The trend continues today as Lenny Kravitz (really?) carries over from a cameo in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly".  Take that.  But this also kicks off a week of films with Robin Williams (last seen in "The Big Wedding"), as he plays President Eisenhower (really?) in "The Butler".

THE PLOT:  As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man's life, family, and American society.

AFTER: I don't address Black History Month in my schedule, because my February is usually filled with films about love and romance, so I have to play catch-up on this topic when I can.  I could easily see connecting to "12 Years a Slave" if I were linking by topic, which I'm not.  Thematically I'm going to bouncing around for a while.  There is some plantation-based stuff at the start of this film, which almost calls the timeline into question for me, because 1926 Georgia here is depicted as if it's really pre-Civil War.  

Let me be clear about this, this is a look at American history from just one angle, a review of 8 presidencies (really, 5) that really only takes into account each leader's record on civil rights.  Not that the struggle isn't important, but if you're going to judge a President, you need to look at everything, how many trips he took, how much legislation he vetoed, how many unjustified wars he started, how many affairs, etc.  I think breaking it down to just civil rights does the office a large disservice.  Look, these are busy men.  I say 5 Presidents instead of 8 because the film manages to skip over Ford and Carter, so I'm concluding that Carter's record on civil rights was pretty good, and detailing this just wouldn't fit with the narrative that someone was trying to construct.  

Beyond that, it seems to be a detailing of clueless men and lost opportunities.  Eisenhower stood for integration, but those school boards in Arkansas kept getting in his way.  Nixon was going to support equal pay for African-Americans (at least, that's what he SAID, why wouldn't you trust him?) but then lost the election to John F. Kennedy.  JFK was a big supporter of civil rights, when he wasn't hopped up on pain meds for his back, then he had to go and get himself shot (Whoops, SPOILER ALERT).  LBJ managed to take a stand, enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and hey, free tie clips!  

Then we get Nixon again, but by this time he's a complete wreck, a paranoid who's been told of the dangers of the militant Black Panthers, so no progress there.  Then there's that unexplainable 6-year gap in U.S. history, during which no civil rights progress was made, because everyone was busy watching "Sanford & Son".  (Hey, the movie implied that, not me!)  Then Reagan was a douche who refused to support sanctions against South Africa because of Apartheid, but hey, free dinner!  

All this time, Cecil Gaines is a butler at the White House who points out to his superiors, time and again, that the black staff only makes 40% what the white staff makes.  Yes, even while the politicians are claiming that all Americans should be treated equally, the salaries and promotions at the White House were anything but equal.  Are we really surprised by this?   And aren't we in the exact same situation right now with women's pay?  Why do equality rights always seem like a no-brainer in retrospect, but no one ever seems able to change the current situation?

Meanwhile, Cecil's son gets involved with the civil rights movement at the grass roots level, participating in lunch counter sit-ins in Tennessee, then attacked by the Klan in Alabama in 1961, marching with Dr. King, and then joining the Black Panthers.  It's funny how this character ends up everywhere important, becoming sort of a civil rights Forrest Gump, only without the box of chocolates and the childlike innocence.  I dare say it strains credulity that one person could have been at all of those events, leaving the other son to fight in Vietnam.  (you can probably guess where that plotline is going, this is a very heavy-handed and non-subtle film.)  

Yes, there's some mother-son relationship stuff here, so I feel justified in my holiday tie-in.  But after throwing one son out of her house, and which questions about her drinking and possible infidelity, Mrs. Gaines may not win any "Mother of the Year" awards.  But the film is really a look back at racial tension, important times in history when, as African-Americans demonstrated for their rights, the country was a tinderbox, and riots often broke out.  Thank God that doesn't happen any more, and everything got solved when a black President was elected.

NITPICK POINT: I understand the importance of casting name actors in key roles, but picking the people that they did to play U.S. Presidents in this film seems like stunt casting of the highest order.  When the guy who played Richard Nixon in the last "X-Men" film looks and sounds better than the guy playing him in a historical drama, that's a really bad sign.   

Also starring Forest Whitaker (last heard in "Where the Wild Things Are"), Oprah Winfrey (last heard in "The Princess and the Frog"), David Oyelowo (last seen in "Red Tails"), Cuba Gooding, Jr. (ditto), Terrence Howard (last seen in "Hustle & Flow"), Adriane Lenox (last seen in "The Skeleton Twins"), Olivia Washington, James Marsden (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber (last seen in "Goon"), Alan Rickman (last seen in "Love Actually"), Jane Fonda (last seen in "Barefoot in the Park"), Nelsan Ellis, Olivia Washington, Colman Domingo, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey (last seen in "Precious"), Vanessa Redgrave (last seen in "Julia"), Clarence Williams III (last seen in "Purple Rain"), Elijah Kelly, David Banner, with cameos from Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Walter Cronkite, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Gladys Knight, Redd Foxx, Hal Linden, Ron Glass. 

RATING: 5 out of 10 silver trays